Sunday, 30 November 2014

Corruption: the Spanish disease?

Last week I spent alone here in our little Spanish village; Margaret had returned to England. Embarrassed by my failure to master the Spanish language, I decided that a period of total immersion was called for: speaking, hearing and reading entirely in the Spanish language. It did not work out. John, of Joy and John (see previous blogs), is in poor straights with no job and no money so I decided to give him a little work shifting my rubbish tip. As a result, I spent the Monday with him - speaking English. Then I met Terry at his pizzeria and spent an evening talking to him, in English. Then, on another evening, I bumped into a friend who runs the camping site - he’s Dutch but we speak in English, of course. Following that chance meeting I went to the campsite the next day, hence more English conversation with Joost and his wife Jet. Then my neighbours who live above us invited me to dinner on Friday evening. I accepted with alacrity; my cooking being not so good. But that meant another English night. And so it went on.

However, I did immerse myself in Spanish TV and radio. With the former I usually switch on the subtitles (in Spanish) otherwise I understand little or nothing. “Did your mother have subtitles on her head when she taught you English?” Claire, the daughter of my dinner party neighbours, challenged me when I confessed to this, and I suppose she has a point – I turned them off. I still understood little, but I did pick up some words and sometimes, just occasionally, the gist of what was being discussed.

During that entire week, guess which word stood out most on both TV and radio news? You’ve probably guessed it – immigration. No, not at all, but it was one of the words ending in ‘ion’ (most of these words are identical or very similar in Spanish and England, thanks be to Latin). No, the word of the week was - corruption. The previous president of Catalonia, Pujol, came up for trial, accused of massive diversion of state funds into foreign bank accounts. A number of mayors in Madrid were arrested by the police on charges of corruption. Corruption was unveiled amongst socialist politicians in Andalusia. And so on, and on.

Is corruption endemic in Spain (and its former colonies in Latin America, the Philippines, etc)? I suspect that it is, and that it pervades all levels from the very top (royalty and politicians) to the very bottom where it is conventional practice to avoid the swingeing stamp duty (7%) exacted here on house purchase  by allocating a good proportion of the cost of the purchase to incredibly expensive furniture apparently lying within.

Does corruption exist in the UK? Of course it does, it exists everywhere. Remember MP’s expenses, cash for questions and the bankers manipulating interest rates? But these are, I believe, exceptions and not the rule. And the guilty are chased by the press, and usually punished by the courts.

Spain is my second country despite its woeful lack of real ale and my lamentable attempts to speak and understand the language; I therefore wish it and its people well.  It is a young democracy in some respects, still smarting from its years under the iron hand of Franco, yet still luxuriating in its splendid history. It calls its present parlous economic situation ‘La Crisis’. Whilst it continues to wallow in the gutter of corruption,I fear it has little chance of recovery from that crisis and the youngsters in the cities who are unemployed, which is most of them, will remain so.

Interestingly, a new political party has emerged in Spain recently. It calls itself ‘Podemos’ which I think translates to ‘we can’. I do not know its policies or aims, but it is the symbol of change to many and is gaining traction. Perhaps it will help to eradicate the ‘C’ word from Spanish politics and business.

Friday, 14 November 2014

The last step and my perfect shop

Here  in Spain, things go at a different pace. In England the corner shop has been eradicated by the supermarket and the ironmongers replaced by the sheds: Wickes, B&Q and so forth. I have a love/hate relationship with the sheds, they seem to have everything except the thing you actually want and I, an amateur, often know more about using their stuff than the people who work there. In Spain the process of eradication and replacement is ongoing. Here, in our small village, we have a fully operational carpentry business which can make anything from a bird box to a barn and a blacksmith who once made nice cowl for my fire for a mere fifteen euros, but is more likely to be making or repairing huge agricultural machines to be towed behind tractors. Oh, and we have two bakeries and two corner shops too.

Though an amateur, I do a lot of things myself and in order to do DIY I need bits and pieces, usually small numbers of them. In Oxford, since the closure of the one and only remaining ironmongers in the city, I have been forced to traverse the huge sheds searching for some small item: asking for help but getting none. Here we have Falgas. Falgas is a shop in a village some ten miles away that sells almost anything that you might need, literally. Yes, from a teaspoon to a watering can to a welding machine, they have it all, and they can tell you how things work, and adapt them to your needs.

After the first robbery here I tried to secure the door of my caseta (stone hut) with a swinging arm of my own design. I had it tested by criminally minded friends and finally settled on the Mark 3 version. The  latest thief made short work of my clever design. Finding that he or she could not get in after angrily ripping off the door bolt he, it surely was a he, violently tore off part of the door and simply swept my swinging arm to one side. The Mark 3 had failed. I am now working on the Mark 4 and strengthening the door with iron bars. The Mark 4 will have a ratchet mechanism so that it cannot be swept aside. However, in early tests, I found that the ratchet requires a spring assembly to force it into place. I tried to fabricate something using a hacksaw blade as a spring, but it was no good. So, off I went to Falgas to explain my problem in broken Spanish. In very little time the manager had shown me a few possible readymade solutions but they too were no good. Then, as a team, he and I brought together a spring, two bits of tube, one of which fits inside the other and I had my solution. He even drilled holes in the tubes and inserted pins to keep the thing together. Total cost six euros!

Security aside, progress continues on my project. Two weeks after laying the last stone in the walls, I have completed the external stairs that lead from the main room of the caseta to the terrace above where I am currently building a small stone hut to house water tanks and batteries. For about two years I have been using the slope that now supports the stairs to ascend and descen and to pull up concrete and large stones. During all of that time Margaret has refused to ascend the slope because it is ‘dangerous’. I completed the last of the fourteen steps on Friday and invited her up the steps for a first view of the terrace the next day. I made a table out of concrete blocks, covered it with a white cloth made from a bag in which sand had been delivered then laid out two glasses and a bottle of local red wine. She was touched. Of course, I could have bought a proper table from Falgas…and a wine cooler…and a table cloth…and a bottle opener…and…

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Stoned at last. And stunned.

On Saturday 25th of October, I laid the ultimate stone on a low sloping wall on the new terrace of my caseta. I laid the first on 20th March 2010, nearly five years before. It’s been a long haul. Like Sisyphus, I thought it would never end, and at times, like a quitter, I felt like walking away from the whole thing. So how did I feel when I laid that last little stone? Bathos. Do you remember finishing exams at school or whatever? For weeks you studied and crammed, hardly sparing the time to dream of what you would do when it was all over. Then it was all over and you were at a loss for something to do. Swatting had become your life. Building with stone became mine, so laying that last stone produced a strange sense of loss.

Though it was hard work and often quite boring, there was a sense of progress. At the end of a week the wall had grown a little, another corner stone could be added, maybe the gap between the two halves of the wall could be backfilled with concrete. It has been frustrating at times: the search for the right stone, the careful shaping of a stone to fit into “the jigsaw with no solution” followed by that final smack with the hammer that disintegrated the thing, the amazing tendency for stones to align with those below rather than bond. But there was also a sense of creation. I could see where I had been and, overlooking a few mistakes, there was no going back.

There were times when did feel like giving the whole thing up, but a spell in the UK usually cured that: I came back with the enthusiasm of an absentee returned. I clearly remember finishing the first, the south, wall up to terrace height and feeling rather pleased with myself, then I turned to the north and realised with a sinking heart that I had to do it all again. And when I finished that I had to do the west wall before I could install joists and lay the concrete terrace floor upon them and the walls. And that was not the end I had to build the terrace walls and the little casita above to house batteries and tanks and stuff. The end seemed unreachable. Yet I have reached it – though there is still lost of other work to be done on the project, I have finished stone work.

Skill is an acquired thing, though some people build on an innate ability. You can look at someone plastering a wall, or engraving a glass, or making a pot, or playing a guitar, and think, “I wish I could do that”. And of course you could, but it would take many years of practice to be really good at it. I have served my apprenticeship in stone walling – but would only rank myself as semi-skilled. I currently have a good eye for a required stone and a reasonable feel for the nature of stones: crumbly, workable, fracture prone, brittle, etc. However, those abilities will soon fade if I do not exercise them. What will remain is the stone caseta, or at least I certainly hope it will.

Whilst every cloud might have a silver lining, the satisfaction of completing my stone work has been marred. A few days afterwards, I was burgled again. It happened during my lunch break, a mere hour and half. Fortunately, and most strangely, they only stole petrol (worth less that 20 Euros), ignoring my drill and angle grinder which were both nearby. They made a fearful mess smashing in the door and, most galling, they made short shrift of my clever security mechanism – back to the drawing board.

Stunned and vengeful, I called in the Guardia Civil who were about as much help as a turnip in a training college. Constantly fingering their guns as if the thief might be nearby, and grinning as if at some secret joke they both shared, they told me that I must go to the station and make a report. I said, “That is what I am doing, I am making a report to you”. But they could do nothing they said, for all they knew an animal might have committed the crime or I might have done it myself. “You must make a report,” they reiterated. “And then what?” I asked, exasperated. They seemed confused by this question, as if the answer was too obvious for words. They left, fingering their revolvers and grinning.